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We'll Finish With Bruises (we hit all of the bumps)

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Jim's good mood lasts about two weeks into space, when the worst part of his job bites him in the ass during what is meant to be rec time on Lovelace Starbase.

"This one yours?" The Station's Chief of Security looks at Jim, gesturing towards the red-shirted kid plastered against the wall of the lock-up.

Jim makes a show of looking the ensign up and down, like he has two hundred fucking moronic security officers on the Enterprise, and maybe he doesn't know if this one is his or not. He does know, of course. He knows, at bare minimum, the names and faces of everyone on board his ship. This face, he knows a little more than that. Ensign Charles 'Charlie' Peel hails from Iowa and he joined the crew two weeks ago with a black eye barely faded. You can't see it now, with the broken nose and blood trickling from his hairline.

Jim sighs. "Yeah, this is mine. He do any permanent damage?"

"To anyone else? No. But we can't have Starfleet kids picking bar-fights with the tourists. All due respect, Captain, but it's bad for business."

"Oh, like hell it is. Beefy kid from Jirol IV gets to go home and tell all his friends he knocked down some wet behind the ears cadet fresh off the Enterprise. Dates have been secured with less material, let me tell you."

"Hey…"

"Don't help, Ensign." Jim glares through the door.

Chief Daniels says, "Nevertheless, Captain."

"Fine, fine. What do you need?"

They negotiate a fine, and Jim agrees to give the station an extension on some reported violations that should have been fixed before the Enterprise arrived. He probably would have given them that anyway, and the ship's operations are meant to cover this kind of thing. No, Jim's real problem is the part that comes after.

He gets them both back to the ship, and grabs one of the kid's security buddies to make sure that he gets dropped into the right bed and won't wake up choking on vomit. Then he goes to face the music.

He explains the situation to his best friend, hoping for support, or advice, or something more useful than this.

"Bones, will you stop laughing?"

Bones doesn't stop. He covers his eyes and laughs harder. Jim wonders, again, why everyone thinks that Jim is getting the better deal on this friendship of theirs.

Jim tries the sentence again. "I need to hold a disciplinary hearing. He was drunk and disorderly in Starfleet uniform. Bones!"

Bones coughs. "Yeah, yeah, I know. It's just… if we could go back and introduce this you to the kid I dragged through the academy."

"You didn't drag me! I went to class."

"You went to most of your classes," Bones corrects. "You were just lucky enough never to miss an exam. What I meant was: you had me to drag you away from the fights you were dumb enough to try and get yourself into. Some of them, anyhow. I'm not a miracle-worker."

Jim smiles. "That's exactly what you are."

"Not happening."

"What?"

"I'm not doing this for you. You need to haul the kid over the coals, you do it yourself. That's why you have all the stripes, Captain."

"Fine," Jim says. "I will."

Jim goes to find Spock. He stops in the doorway. Spock and Uhura are sitting either side of the table, with a game board and tiles in between them. Jim doesn't recognise the game and he is reluctant to disturb them.

Spock looks up. "Captain."

"Hey."

Uhura turns her head. "Problem? Did the station release Ensign Peel?"

"Yeah. Yeah they did. I need to… Hey, you two are busy doing… whatever. I'll come back later."

Uhura frowns at him. That might have been suspicious. She looks at him. "Did you need something, Captain?"

"No, I really didn't need anything in…"

"Sit," she instructs.

Jim does. He looks wearily at his first officer. "Any chance you want to haul Peel over the coals for me?" Jim is pretty sure that he would rather face the massed forces of an enemy fleet than go and explain to a hung over kid why it's wrong to damage Starfleet's reputation by starting fights. He doesn't enjoy feeling like a hypocrite.

Spock raises his eyebrow and Jim thinks he might have to explain the idiom, but no. Spock replies, "If you wish, Captain, although I feel it would be unwise."

Jim groans. "Yeah?"

Spock moves a tile and sends Uhura racing to defend herself, or build a new attack, or whatever it is they're doing. "Yes," Spock says.

"Because I'm the one with the rank insignia and the attendant crappy jobs?"

"I have no problem with disciplinary functions. Nevertheless, I feel that it is important for the crew that you are seen as a…." Spock searches for the right word.

Uhura drops a tile onto the board with satisfaction. "What Spock means is: you can't be playing 'wait til your father gets home'. You have to show them who's boss."

"They know I'm boss. I really have to oversee every little…?"

"The last time this happened, Spock oversaw it. The time before it was Sulu."

"The last time this happened, I was in sickbay. The time before that, so was Spock."

She smirks at him. "I know. But you're captain, and that means sometimes you have to be unpopular. They can't like you all the time."

"You think people don't like me? I'm very likable. You like me, right, Spock?"

Spock considers the board for a long moment. Jim isn't worried. Much. He can see the slant in Spock's lips that means he's just about to say: "Yes. I believe so." He moves a tile.

Uhura is still smiling. "I notice you didn't ask me what I thought."

Jim puts his hand to his heart in mock hurt.

Uhura laughs and stands up from the table. She places one tile, very carefully, and leans over the board to look at Spock. "That's one-one. We can play the decider tomorrow." She rests her hand on Jim's shoulder before she leaves.

Jim watches her walk out of the door and turns back to Spock. "She beat you?"

"Lieutenant Uhura has always been a fast learner."

Jim hums agreement. "So. You two are getting along?"

Spock leans his head to one side. "I fail to understand the significance of the question. We have an effective working relationship and an amiable personal one. Nothing about that has changed recently."

Jim sighs. "No. I guess not. Okay, so are you going to help me with this or not?"

"With your disciplinary problem?"

"I don't have a- oh. Yeah, that. Help."

Spock nods. "Of course, Captain. You do realise, however, that you will have to be the one to-."

"I know, I know." Jim looks at the board and lifts one of the tiles. He turns it over in his hand.

Spock takes it back from Jim delicately. Spock's tactile gestures towards Jim tend towards an exaggerated care (when he's not strangling him over bits of the ship) as though he's afraid of hurting him. Spock puts the scrap of ceramic back to where Jim had lifted it from. "I want to study the game. It should help me to achieve victory in the deciding match."

Jim nods. "Sure. But this first, right?"

Spock hands Jim one of the discarded tiles, left sitting beside the board. "Starfleet regulations…" he begins.

Jim rests his chin on one hand, and plays with the tile in the other. He already knows the regulations but Spock has a reverence for them which reminds Jim of the important parts. Jim can quote chapter and verse - to the surprise of most people who don't know him well - but Spock makes them sound like they matter.

 

* * * *

They're both right, of course. (Bones and Spock agree more often than either of them would suspect).

Peel is probably still hung over when Jim calls him in. He's pale and there's more than a touch of green in the kid's complexion. Jim really hopes he doesn't throw up on the briefing room floor. That would probably involve another disciplinary hearing.

Peel manages a salute. He must think he's in big trouble. "Captain."

"Ensign. You know why you're here. Would you like to explain your behaviour last night?"

"I was on shore leave, sir."

"You were in uniform – you were a representative of this ship. My ship. How do you think it reflects on my captaincy if my crew are going around picking fights with tourists?"

"They started it," Peel says. "There was this girl…"

Jim feels a throbbing headache start up behind his eyes. "Yes?"

"I didn't- Sir, I didn't start…" He stops talking. "It won't happen again, Captain."

"You're damn right it won't. You're confined to ship for a month. No shore leave, no away missions."

"Sir-."

"Do you really want to try my patience, kid?"

Peel shuts up. "No, sir."

"So you're learning. Go on now – get to wherever you're supposed to be. Head by sickbay first and see if they've got something to keep your breakfast in your stomach." Jim smiles.

Peel nods too quickly. "Yes, sir."

Peel leaves, and Jim rests his head on the table. He stays that way for a few minutes, where there is nothing to bother him.

Bones is in the doorway, laughing.

Jim doesn't look up. "I called him 'kid'. I told him he was trying my patience."

Bones crosses the room to sit alongside Jim. He gets his laughter under control. "Was he?"

"Yes! For being drunk and stupid and starting fights. And now my head hurts. And I know you'll say I deserve it, so let's take that as read, okay?"

Bones tilts Jim's head back to look him in the eyes. "Okay. Spock said he'd take your shift for a while, if you want to grab something to eat. And I'll get you something for your head."

"Bones."

"It won't hurt, you big baby."

"No, I mean, I should…"

"Breakfast first. Then you can file your report and send it back to HQ. Pike could probably do with a good laugh. Spock has it covered until then."

Jim's not sure why it's okay for Spock to cover the beginning of his shift but not okay for him to ream out stupid junior officers so Jim won't have to. But he won't turn down the chance to finally get something to eat and a cup of coffee. Though he could do without the opportunity to get in some quality report-filing time.

 

* * * *

Jim is fairly certain that, somewhere out in the universe, there must be Starfleet ships that go peacefully from mission to mission without a hiccup. Without the interference of other 'missions' which suddenly and inexplicably interrupt, because Jim is hardly going to leave people in trouble, whether or not he has other places he really should be. (He submits some pretty creatively phrased reports on 'why the Enterprise missed her target on shipment delivery to Starbase 22.')

This one is going to be hard to explain, though.

It starts with Uhura. Or maybe it doesn't, maybe she only notices first, because this is a milk-run after a long week and no one's really talking. She turns around and opens her mouth to say something to Jim, and nothing comes out.

Jim looks at her. "Uhura?"

She touches her throat. She mouths: Can you hear me?

Jim shakes his head. He taps the keys to page sickbay. "Bones-." He means to say 'get your ass up here' but can't hear his own voice.

The channel is still open but nobody in medical is talking either.

Jim looks around the bridge. Spock manages the first syllable of something before he too is making with the fish impression. It's more than anyone else manages.

Jim doesn't think about it. There are overrides in the system to bypass the vocal authorisation. Quarantine.

The alarm lights flash, and the computer's patient voice recites over and over: This ship is now in quarantine. Please follow relevant protocols. Non-essential crew please return to quarters and await further instruction.

Jim bangs on his console until everyone is looking at him. He points at Uhura.

She raises her eyebrows: what?

He mouths it; she doesn't follow. He tries again, one more time for luck, and then hauls her over by the shoulder. He settles her into his chair. The conn, Uhura. You have the fucking conn.

She catches the expletive, anyway, and glares at him. Another raised eyebrow, and a quirked smile.

Jim shrugs. He has no idea what she's supposed to do if she needs to give a command in a hurry either. He still thinks she'll have better luck than him. Communications is her department after all.

Jim nods his head in Spock's direction, and they make their way to sickbay. When they get there, Spock and Bones immediately launch into a very animated silent argument.

Jim interrupts by stepping in between them. Spock folds his arms and nods, once.

Bones is still trying to convey whatever it was he was 'shouting' about.

Jim covers Bones's mouth. He mouths: Listen.

How?

Jim nods at the flashing lights – the low alarm. He taps at Bones's medical division insignia. Something caused this.

Bones shrugs. He points at Jim's phaser like, Maybe you brought something onboard?

Jim thinks about it. The last mission was the one that ended in a shoot-out over the trade of untested medical supplies. It's possible, but the containers were sealed and there was nothing living in them anyway. The mission before that was a survey for sentient life on a little green moon. Lots of trees, some deer, and the crew could all still talk. Still, it's worth a look.

Spock holds out his datapad. Jim blinks and accepts it. Lots of readouts but no unusual activity. He looks at Spock: Nothing?

Spock nods.

Bones is running a scanner briskly over Jim. He shakes his head. Nothing there either. Jim's not panicking, exactly – they've had weirder, more dangerous problems than this one. It's just that any moment-.

This happens.

The screen flashes on the wall. Bones pushes a button. Engineering.

Scotty is holding up a sign: Captain?

Jim moves into the frame and waves.

Scotty turns over the sign: There's something in the engines.

Jim tries to think of a way to ask the right questions – something or someone, crew or stowaway? In the end he just taps his foot and waits for Scotty to fill in the gaps. He usually does that eventually anyway.

Scotty waves his hands about, twitching his fingers. Bugs? Jim mouths. Scotty tilts his head to one side, considering. He presses his lips together and makes a face. Buzzing? Jim is still on his bug theory.

Spock wraps his hand around Jim's elbow and tugs. That's a whole new level of strange. Jim turns.

Spock mouths the word several times without success. He takes Jim's palm and draws the letters with his finger. Jim grins. He wants to point out that his hands aren't as sensitive as a Vulcan's, but it suddenly clicks. Energy. Gas.

Invisible? Jim checks, waving his hand in front of his eyes to give the visual aid.

Atmospheric? Bones is asking something about the physiological impact and Spock-

Something cracks. Jim can see the moment the decision coalesces. Spock pushes Bones towards Jim and mouths: Still.

Jim opens his mouth.

Still, Spock tries again. Stay still. He lays his fingers carefully along the side of Jim's head and then, after a moment resolving himself, mirrors it on Bones.

It's not so intense this time. More control, less grief. Images form, hazily and then suddenly in focus. Manipulating pressure – change weather – gas composition. Prey on herds who communicate vocally. Forests. So maybe they did bring it with them.

Stop them? Jim asks.

Bones is saying, How do they kill?

Spock thinks, 'electrical energy' then 'suffocation?' and one of them – Jim doesn't know who – has a vivid mental flash of Jim choking to death on the bridge.

Bones pulls away first and now it's just Jim and Spock, in a loop of Jim choking and breathing again. Jim's pretty sure that it's not his memory any more.

Jim cuts in: how do we stop them? Are they sentient? Can we talk to them? Reason with them? Do I need guns?

Spock breaks the connection, dropping his hand. He looks at Scotty, who is still on the screen, watching them with unabashed curiosity. Spock lifts his datapad and sends something across to engineering; Jim can see Scotty turn away to look at the message. Atmospheric scrub. Section by section. Monitor for any changes in pressure/gas concentration. Electrical malfunctions.

Jim frowns. That'll take a while, especially with no easy means of communication between departments. They can send messages, of course. It's just that he mostly runs his ship as a kind of argument in motion, and he's pretty sure that they don't have time for him to make a suggestion, Spock to explain that it's not going to work, and then Jim to run point on corralling the thirty-five other suggestions from the six other people present. Others may call his methods unconventional, but they do discover many new and exciting mistakes to make on an almost daily basis.

Spock touches his arm again. It's not that they don't touch, under normal circumstances. They drag each other out of harm's way often enough, and they stand side-by-side on the bridge. Deliberate, unprovoked contact in non-emergency circumstances is new. Or, who knows, maybe Spock does consider this an emergency.

Jim takes the hint – emergency or not – and pages security to start coordinating teams. This would take a while even if they could talk, and as it is it takes longer to get the teams out than if Jim just walked the whole ship himself. Or at least it feels that way: Jim is exhausted by the time they finally get to the bridge and they still have most of this level to clear.

Plus, they haven't had any problems yet. Jim always finds that suspicious.

They've left the bridge for last because Jim wanted to make sure there were still crew around if they needed them. Chekov is leaning over his console, tapping at it anxiously like it might explode if he leaves it alone too long.

There's a crackling static in the air. Jim yells but it doesn't matter. He dives over the chair and pulls Chekov out of the way before an electric flash comes down on top of the console. Sparks fly and there's a long moment of chaos and spots in front of his eyes before Spock is pulling him to his feet. Spock turns to Chekov and starts reaming him out for inattention, no matter that the kid can't understand a word.

Jim can pick out a few choice phrases though – he turns to Bones and raises his eyebrow. Vulcans curse, sure, but it tends to be a little more… well. The only reason that Jim even knows what Spock just said is that he hit on the wrong guy's girlfriend a couple of years back and got a crash-course in Romulan.

Spock looks back at Jim and runs a quick hand over his chest, looking for an injury that never happened. He lifts his other hand near Jim's face; Jim leans into it, giving Spock access to the meld-points.

Jim waits for a question, some reason for the touch. If Spock's reading him, he's being subtle about it. Spock drops his hand, shaking himself against something. He goes back to Chekov, and the task of clearing the crew off the bridge before there are any more lightning attacks.

Jim looks at Bones for a response and gets nothing. Then Scotty starts sending in reports of more attacks in engineering, and Jim has to focus on that problem.

It's another four hours before the atmosphere and gas levels have returned to normal. Jim is one of the last to get his voice back. He says, "Spock, what…?" and in return gets only a slight nod and his first officer retreating to the labs again.

 

* * * *

They've been having this argument for long enough that even Jim is bored of it. Jim doesn't like mission protocols, but they do exist and Spock always phrases his initial suggestions within them, even when he knows he won't win.

"Captain," Spock says.

And Jim says, "All right, fine," and there's an unsettling quiet.

"I'm sorry, Captain?" Spock queries.

"You can lead the away team, I'll stay on the ship."

"You," Spock checks, "will stay on the ship."

"Yeah."

"And await my report."

"Yeah. Look, take Uhura – the two of you can try and get a handle on the situation before I come down there." The planetary council don't seem to be very happy to be receiving Starfleet guests, but they agreed to the talks. Hopefully Uhura and Spock can settle things down and figure out where the major stumbling blocks are before Jim gets involved.

"Captain," Spock says.

"Hey, you're always saying we shouldn't both be on every away mission. What have I done wrong now?"

Uhura says, "It's just that you don't normally listen when Spock says-."

"I listen to Spock!"

"-when he says," she continues, "that you should stay aboard ship."

This, Jim cannot deny. He doesn't enjoy the wait, while other people are out there taking the risks. He isn't comfortable asking his crew to brave danger he's not facing himself. He doesn't understand why that's a bad thing.

Spock has his eyebrow raised.

Jim doesn't have an explanation for him. Only a half-formed notion that maybe if he sends Uhura and Spock down to the planet together, he can push them back into doing more than playing tile-games with each other. Then he can stop feeling guilty for no reason (for the way Spock touched Jim's chest, his eyes dark and still and silent) about whatever broke the two of them up. Jim shrugs. "Maybe I don't want you to worry. Now go. Get it done. I want out of here."

Spock nods at Uhura and they go to the transporter room together. Jim doesn't follow them. He stays on the bridge, even when the shooting starts.

And Jim asks, "Spock?" and Spock says, "No. Stay where you are. We will be ready to beam up in forty-five seconds." There's a sharp pain-noise from someone in range of the communicator.

Chekov looks up from his console. Jim shakes his head. Scotty's already down there and there are ships rising from the planet. He needs Sulu and Chekov where they are. Jim pages sickbay and says, "Bones."

"Already on my way."

Jim counts: three-two-one. A pause, then: "Four to beam up, Mr Scott."

Another beat of silence, and then Jim can hear Bones on the comms. "If I say you need medical attention, Spock, then damn it you need medical attention."

Uhura's voice is clearer, aimed directly at Jim. "It's a graze, Captain. No other injuries."

Jim nods. "Okay. Uhura? Can you get up here?"

"All right…"

"It's just that we're being fired on. You have any idea why?"

She bites out, "Yes," and Jim can hear her start to run. He waits for her to reach the bridge. The Enterprise rocks under a hit as she arrives – Jim trips and she catches his arm. She looks at him oddly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. What happened?"

"Something was stolen. They blamed us."

"And it wasn't….?"

"Spock pointed out that Starfleet officers aren't terribly likely to start stealing expensive jewellery, and that the councillor's brother has a well-known gambling problem."

"And that's…?"

"When they started shooting, yes. Though they weren't happy about us being there even before all of that happened."

"Okay." At least he knows what's going on. "Scotty?"

"This is as fast as we go, Captain," Scotty answers, with a tone suggesting that if it weren't for Jim's rank, he'd be saying something quite different.

"How long before we-?" There's an abrupt cessation of hostilities.

Uhura grabs her headset. "They're… yes. The councillor had someone investigate her… they apologise for the misunderstanding."

"Misunder- Fine."

"What would you like me to-?"

"Tell them I appreciate the apology, but the incident will still be logged with Starfleet. And I'll be on-planet personally to oversee the talks tomorrow morning. And that the dents in my ship may affect my negotiating position. Okay?"

She smiles. "Yes, Captain."

With all of that, he's worked a double-shift and he's mad for some reason he can't pin down. So when Spock comes to see Jim in his quarters, his arm strapped to his side, Jim says, "Your report?"

"Captain?"

"You want to tell me what happened down there?"

"Did Lieutenant Uhura not…?"

"I know what she said. I want your report. You were the commanding officer down there. What happened that ended up with you getting yourself shot?"

"It's a minor injury, Captain. Lieutenant Uhura, and Ensigns Lennox and Santos returned unscathed."

"I know that too."

Spock is frowning. He doesn't know what he did wrong and neither does Jim, really. He wanted to be there and wasn't, but even if he had been, nothing would have happened differently. He's angry, maybe, that Spock got hurt. And that Jim stayed onboard because he thought it might make Spock happy.

Spock sits on the end of Jim's bed, where he is reclining with the day's reports. Jim shifts his legs. Spock says, "Jim."

Jim sits up. He touches Spock's bandaged arm. "Bones saw this?"

"He was insistent."

Jim laughs. "Good. That's what we pay him for."

"It was unnecessary."

"You always think medical attention is unnecessary. Unless it's me, in which case it turns into a full-scale emergency. The double standards are really…"

"Jim," Spock interrupts. "Are you… are you all right?"

"Am I…? Yeah, I'm okay. Don't get yourself shot again."

"I've been shot before. Often while you were present."

"And that makes it my fault?"

"Jim. I meant only that I don't understand why this is-."

"Different," Jim says. "It's different. Because I wasn't there. I could hear… and I wasn't there." He sighs. "God, I'm bad at this."

Spock looks at Jim in query. Jim looks back for one breath, and then leans across the space that barely exists anymore. He braces himself against Spock's undamaged arm, and kisses him.

There is a moment where Spock is still, another where he is kissing back, and by the third he is pulling away and saying, "Jim, what?"

Jim pushes himself back across the bed. "Sorry. I'm sorry. Go. I'll see you- Get your report to me tomorrow. I'll read it, it's fine. You should get some rest. Go on."

He's still disappointed when Spock actually leaves.

 

* * * *

 

It would be okay if they could just leave it at that. Jim had really thought that one of the benefits of having an embarrassing 'thank God you're not dead' kiss with your male, Vulcan second-in-command was that you could dispense with the post-game dissection. But Spock seems like he wants to talk. He conveys this in his own characteristic fashion: by raising one eyebrow and folding his arms and looking at Jim across the bridge. And then not actually saying anything about it. Jim doesn't know if he's supposed to be apologising or proposing.

Spock finally corners him in the mess. "Captain."

"Spock."

"I feel that- it seems that a natural response would be-."

Once upon a time, Jim would be really pleased with himself for driving Spock to incoherency.

Jim waves Spock towards the corner of the room – either they'll have a private conversation about feelings, or Spock will punch him in the face and privacy won't matter. Jim really doesn't know right now. "What do you want, Spock?"

"I… I would like you to tell me what you want."

Jim groans. Of course he does.

Spock takes a step closer; he presses his two fingers to the back of Jim's hand. He slides them up to Jim's wrist and curls them around the joint.

This, naturally, is the point at which Chekov manages to send a piece of his cutlery flying, comes bounding after it, and stops short with a sudden, "Oh."

It would be fine, if Spock didn't colour green and step hastily away from Jim. (Jim doesn't do much better, in truth.) Half of not being found out is knowing how not to look guilty. Spock nods at him – "Captain," – and sidesteps away out of the mess.

Jim looks at Chekov for a moment. He manages to school his expression back to what had passed for normality before this (before Spock). Jim smiles at Chekov quickly and tries not to look like he's running from the room.

He walks to sickbay and paces up and down outside for a little while before going in. Bones looks up and Jim says, "So. I may have kissed Spock. I thought I should tell you before someone broadcasts it on ship wide."

He expects Bones to laugh. He doesn't expect Bones to grab him by the arm and drag him into the office. Bones dumps him on the chair, sits down on the other side of the desk and says, "Are you fucking insane?"

"What?"

"You can't seriously be thinking about… Spock? Seriously, Jim?"

"Bones, this isn't really…"

"You have done some dumb- slept with some dumb people in your time, kid, but this one really takes the cake."

"We didn't sleep together." It's important to get that one cleared up. "We kissed. That's all. We haven't even… I don't know what we're doing. I think he wants me to figure it out."

"And?"

"And I came to talk to you."

"So I could help you dig yourself out of the hole you threw yourself into?"

"No," Jim says. "I don't know. I think I… I don't know." Jim has used Bones as a de facto guidance counsellor for about five years now, but there hasn't been much in terms of 'relationship' advice. He's not totally sure what he wants from Bones right now.

Bones is just staring at him with mounting horror. "Oh, Christ. You are thinking about it."

"About what?"

"About Spock. You and Spock. Together."

"And if I was?"

"Then again I say: seriously? Spock? He's your second in command, even if he wasn't-"

"Starfleet doesn't have any rules against-."

"No, but they take a pretty strong 'don't be a complete idiot about it' stance. Jim-."

"And what do you mean, 'even if he wasn't'? If he wasn't what?"

Bones braces his hands against the desk. "Jim. If nothing else, he's still Spock."

"Y'know, Bones, I really thought we were past the days of you casting aspersions against my love life."

"Yeah, when it is a- look. Spock sees things… he's a damn Vulcan, Jim."

"So?"

"And you're not. He doesn't see things the way we do."

"Yeah. And we've had this conversation – fight – before. I don't care. I thought we were over this. I thought you two at least… What the hell does it matter if he- he sees things differently, so what? That's what makes him a good officer. That's what makes things interesting. I like- you know what? To hell with this."

"Jim."

"You've had your say. Look me up again when it's time to say 'I told you so'. Best stick to the old tunes, right?"

"Jim."

Jim pushes himself out of the chair. He wants a door that slams but in the absence of that he thumps the wall on the way out.

There are a few more walls to hit on the way, and eventually he figures out that maybe he should have a destination in mind.

The gym gives him something slightly softer to hit. A punching bag, and then Sulu, who is more of a challenge. Chekov had been sparring with Sulu first, but he steps aside graciously and lets the two of them have at it.

Sulu knocks Jim down again. "Captain," he says, grinning.

"Sulu." He pauses. "Oh, for God's sake, spit it out Hikaru."

"So… you and Spock?" Sulu says. Chekov smothers a gasp behind his hand. Although whether it's the idea of it, or Sulu's boldness, Jim doesn't know.

Jim sighs and throws another punch. "Dive out of one spaceship with a guy," he says between punches and blocks, "and suddenly he thinks that you're friends. And that he won't get tossed on his ass for insubordination."

Sulu laughs. "You can try, Captain. How're your piloting skills?"

Jim shrugs. "I know people. Chekov, you can fly a Constitution Class cruiser, right?"

"Fly, yes," Chekov agrees. "Stop…" he wobbles his hand from side-to-side, "… possibly." He sneaks a quietly amused look at Sulu. Jim kind of misses the time when Chekov was at least a little in awe of Jim's command.

Sulu says, "I can show you, kid. Before the Captain throws me off the ship for insubordination."

Chekov looks at Sulu from under his eyelashes. "And in return, I can show you how to play poker."

"I know how to play poker."

"Ah, but I know how to win."

"Kid, I will… Now, look, you let him get away." Jim is halfway down the hallway already.

He won't be able to sleep and even if he could, they would find him in his quarters. Someone would come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse to chase him down there and ask questions. Jim changes direction.

He doesn't know why he didn't go here first. The engineering deck, a convenient and well-insulated conduit to lean against, and no one trying to talk to him. What more could a man need?

He's two levels up and there are crewmembers scurrying about below him. Jim peeks through the railings, just briefly, to check that everything is okay. It's purposeful scurrying, but not panicked. Jim relaxes.

One of the ensigns looks up and sees him. Jim ducks back down into his alcove.

He can hear Scotty below. "Look, son, if the Captain wants to carry out a secret surprise inspection on this department, on his own time, well that's his business, now, isn't it? You just go on with your work and try to impress him."

"But, Commander, if the Captain is running a surprise inspection, wouldn't he want to know that we're alert enough to notice things? Like if there's someone in a place where we wouldn't expect them to be? In case of infiltration?"

Jim can tell that Scotty is somewhat impressed by this line of reasoning. Jim is certainly impressed. His clever crew.

Scotty just says, "The Captain can go wherever he wants on his own damn ship. Back to work, you lazy so and so."

Jim closes his eyes and leans his head back against the touch-warm pipes.

Scotty coughs. "Captain."

Jim doesn't open his eyes. "What happened to 'leave the Captain alone'?"

"I think, if you're having a surprise inspection, you could at least tell the head of department."

"That's exactly who I wouldn't tell, but okay. It's not really an inspection."

"I know that. So what is it?"

Jim opens his eyes. "You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"Gossip mill must be off today."

"Oh, you mean about you and Spock? You haven't ballsed it up already, have you?"

"What? No. We haven't- nothing's happened."

"Oh. Then you're right, the gossip mill isn't doing its job. The kids in Botany practically have the pair of you hitched already."

Jim groans. "I hate everyone."

"Apart from Spock," Scotty corrects.

"Especially Spock. He's the one who- how does anyone figure out- oh."

"Oh?"

"I've just had a really terrible idea."

Jim stands up, and heads towards the mess again. Uhura will just be on her break now. Jim spots her across the room. He sits opposite her and the rest of the table clears. Jim looks at the new space around them and asks, "What did I do?" She's smiling, so he can't be in too much trouble. That sort of makes Jim feel worse. "Uhura, I…"

"So help me, Jim, if you apologise to me right now I'll punch you."

"I-."

"Or try to set me up with Bones, God, what's wrong with you?"

Jim swallows what he had been about to say. "Okay."

"Okay, what?"

"Okay. So, you're not mad?"

"Well, I'm pretty pissed off that everyone seems to think I'm about to hit you. Or cry, or scream or something. You guys do realise that I date, right? I have dated, since Spock. I'm not some-."

"Yeah, I know."

"What kind of a pining, messed-up person do you think I…."

"Uhura! I know, okay. It's just… weird."

"Weird." She raises her eyebrow.

"Because we're… you know."

"What?"

"You know."

"Jim."

"Because we're friends, Uhura, or I thought we were, and you don't go around making a play for your friend's ex. There are- there are rules, you know."

She smiles at him again, very soft, as certain women in his life have been wont to do when they don't know what else to do with him. "Jim," she says, "you're Spock's friend too."

"Uhura-."

She grins. "Speaking of him…"

Spock is standing at the door to the mess. He sees Uhura and Jim; an uncertain expression crosses his face. Jim stands. "Later, Uhura?"

She nods. "Count on it."

Jim catches Spock's arm, ignoring the curious looks they're bound to be getting. He drags Spock out of there and down the hallway.

Spock doesn't protest: not when he's pulled into and out of a turbolift, and not when he's hauled most of the way to Jim's quarters.

Jim stops just outside the door. "Yeah," he says.

"I'm sorry?"

"If you're… I don't know what you want or if this is what you meant but I wouldn't mind- I wouldn't mind trying. To find out? To see where this goes. Is that what you meant?"

Spock shakes his arm free of Jim's persistent grip and pulls it up until they are open palm to open palm.

Jim smiles. "Okay then. Let's…." He tugs Spock into the room, and closes the door securely behind them.

 

* * * *

 

With the exception of the obvious, there's not a whole lot of difference between doing whatever it is he's doing with Spock, and how it was before. If anything, Jim is probably less handsy with Spock on the bridge. It occurs to him, in ways that it didn't before, that he's supposed to be in charge here and that comes along with certain responsibilities. Like not feeling up your First Officer on the bridge of your ship, no matter what the pair of you do in the privacy of your own quarters.

Jim is feeling a little twitchy about the whole affair, to be honest. There's an… investment issue, now that the whole ship knows.

Jim says, "Spock and I will lead the landing party."

The only one who looks at him askance is Spock. Spock says, "Captain, I thought we…"

"The last time I let you go somewhere without me, you got yourself shot."

Spock continues looking at him steadily. There's a spark of humour in his dark eyes; Jim grins back. The twitchy thing comes and goes – he's doing okay with this part.

In less than an hour, they're beaming down to the planet. Everything looks quiet. Jim says, "Where did the last report from the ecological survey team come from?"

 

Spock answers, "The last official report was logged from the secondary base site, but computer records show that communications were made between the two teams and the station before it went quiet."

Jim nods. "Ensign Peel, Ensign Park, fan out that way. Ruari and Fine, that way. Spock and I will check out the station."

When he gives orders now, they are obeyed without question. It's just him and Spock, in easy pace with each other, walking through ankle-height grass. Jim laughs.

"What is it?" Spock asks.

"Nothing," Jim says. "Nothing. Just… would you have predicted this?"

"This?"

"This. Spock-."

There is a shriek from the skies above them. Spock dives at Jim and shoves him to the ground. They roll down the hillside and keep going until they are crouched together at the bottom, shoulder to shoulder. Phasers out and ready.

Jim laughs again. "Giant flying lizards are new."

Spock nods. "Yes."

Jim sobers a little, though he's still giddy with adrenaline. "Think this is what got the survey team?"

"It would seem the likeliest explanation. Although I'm unsure how they failed to mention them in their earlier reports."

"Maybe they're imports."

"Imported lizards?"

Jim shrugs. "It could happen. People do weirder things every day."

"Considering the potential impact on the ecosystem," Spock says, "I can't see why anyone would-."

"I don't know," Jim says. "Maybe they were pets and they grew up too fast? Or maybe they only come out when the moons have shifted to the other side of the planet. Universe of possibilities, Spock, but right now I'm more focussed on the staying alive part."

"Yes," Spock says again. He pushes Jim down flat and leans over him to shoot. One of the lizards comes crashing to the ground.

"Thank you," Jim says.

"You're welcome."

Jim lifts his communicator. "Be aware, hostile animals on planet. Please report."

An out-of-breath gasp and then: "Here, Captain," in four-part harmony. "What the hell…?" So they've seen the lizards then.

"Rendezvous with us at the station. I want to look at the computer logs before we do any more exploring."

Spock nods at him again, and they make their cautious way to where the station is supposed to be.

There's a low-lying building at the tree-line. The windows are broken and the door has been knocked in. They approach it slowly, Spock taking point with Jim covering him. When they get closer, they can see the way the roof is torn to pieces.

"Lizards can do that?" Jim asks.

Spock says, "It depends on the size of the lizard."

Jim acknowledges this and creeps towards the doorway. A lizard somewhere between the size of a chair and a motorbike runs through it. It looks scared, or as scared as lizards get. That's probably not a good sign.

They duck through the entranceway but there doesn't seem to be anything else inside. Spock has a scanner out and is frowning at it. He says, "Jim… I believe the survey team may still be alive-."

"Captain! Get down!" Peel shouts and Jim responds without thinking about it. Spock drops with him.

Jim looks over the edge of their almost-cover to see two of his crewmembers with phasers out, and a creature sprawled across the room's floor. Then he looks at Spock. "Were you hit? Spock."

Spock pulls himself into a sitting position. "I'm unhurt."

Jim nods and looks back to Peel. "Good shooting. Spock, did you say…."

There is a pounding noise from far underneath the floor. "Is anyone there? Is- God, is that Starfleet?" A woman's voice, echoing like it's far away.

"This is Captain Kirk, Enterprise. Is that Doctor Jeo?"

"No. No, she…. This is Hanna Barati. I'm- I was Dr Jeo's research assistant. We…" Her voice trails away into nothing but Jim knows she's still there.

"Hello, Hanna, I'm Jim. How do we get you out of there?"

She exhales shakily. "Equipment? We pulled the ground down after us. Explosives. We needed to make sure they couldn't… There's a communications spread near you. I'm interfacing with it but we're… we're a long way down."

"Okay. Okay, don't worry. We'll get you out. We'll get you home, okay. Now, I'm going to leave you in the capable hands of my first officer, Commander Spock, for a little while. And I'll go and call my people to get you out. Mr Spock, talk to Hanna and find out what you can, please?"

Spock nods. "Of course, Captain. Ms Barati, is there a plan of the tunnels stored on any of these systems?"

Jim goes outside to hail the Enterprise. "I need another security team and I need medical. Search and rescue with excavation equipment. What have we got?"

They take a moment or two to establish that no one is in immediate danger, and that no one from the Enterprise has suffered more than a scratch, but then it's all action.

Soon the clearing is swarming with security and medical – all Jim has to do is stand in the middle and point. Chapel is setting up some kind of triage to ready their new passengers to be transported. Jim can see Keenser sitting high up on one of the broken walls, pointing engineering teams in the right direction. Spock returns to Jim's side with the map, shows the way they're planning to go in, and then goes back to talk to Keenser.

Bones coughs. "Jim."

"Hey." They haven't talked about their argument. They don't do that kind of thing, never have. They just get over it, or fake it until they can.

"So, was this a good or a bad day?" Bones asks.

"How'd you mean?"

"Sunny walk in the park called on account of dinosaurs."

"They are dinosaurs, right? I didn't want to say to Spock, because you know he'd be all… hey."

"What?"

"We weren't having a walk in the park," Jim says. "We don't… we had a job."

"I know."

"So this was a good day. Or it's a good day so far. No casualties, and the refugees are being rescued as we speak. I don't need much more than that."

Bones looks at Spock across the site. "But what you do need, that's him?"

Jim shrugs. "He's part of it." He asks the question: "Do we have a problem?"

"No." Bones shakes his head slowly. "No problem."

There's a sizzle-crash as security takes out another dinosaur. Jim makes a note to call Biology before they go. Someone's going to need to fill out a report that doesn't make it read like: Survey abandoned due to flying lizards. Sorry guys. The sun is shining and they're pulling living people out from underneath ruins.

Jim nods. "It's a good day so far."

Uhura hails him. "Captain. Message from the Vulcan High Council."

"For me?"

"You and Spock."

"We'll be right there."

 

* * * *

 

They want to talk to Spock, really. But someone has told them they should ask the Captain's permission before diverting a starship. Not that Jim could say no, even if he wanted to. The Federation are not going to risk offending the Vulcan Council by refusing them this request. Not when all they want to do is talk.

Spock has been requested personally to consult with a Vulcan dignitary on a nearby starbase. Jim isn't sure why they want to talk to Spock, exactly. He knows how valuable Spock is as a tactical and strategic expert, but there's been little evidence that the Vulcan government thinks the same way. Plus, they have their own Spock. Why do they want Jim's?

There's a way to ask the question – Jim's just not sure what it is.

Spock, somewhat unusually, volunteers the information. "I hope you know that I don't agree with the isolationist stance taken by some of the Council."

"Yeah, I know." Jim pats the first part of Spock he can reach – the elbow of his right arm. "But they're still your… You should talk to them."

"I will. But they may ask for something I am- what happened- it has returned some Vulcans to attitudes which we abandoned centuries ago."

Jim shakes his head. "So what do they want?"

"They want us all to return home and rebuild." Spock abandons all pretence that this is a casual conversation, fixing Jim with dark serious eyes. "They have given me the time to come to my senses on my own. Now they would like a- a demonstration that I have not abandoned my people."

Jim makes himself ask, "Do you want to? Because this is- I wouldn't stop you. I don't think- don't have the right. If you wanted to go."

Spock breathes out slowly and frowns. Jim doesn't know what he said wrong. Spock says, "No. But there has been concern about the rate of repopulation, and the scale of the rebuilding work to be done. Even one Vulcan, even one as I am, is enough to matter."

"Well, of course you matter. But other-you is over there anyway. And it won't be- the Vulcans were one of the founding members of the Federation. The Council can't seriously think that they should bring- would that even work? Could they do it?"

"Perhaps. Not with force. But there are ways they could make it more difficult for those who chose to remain outside of the structures of the Council and its influence. Stigmas they could enforce."

"But you're telling me this. So I'm guessing you have other plans."

Spock nods. "The diplomat they're sending is a moderate. In truth, the Council mistrusts both of us equally."

"This is a good thing?"

"They also cannot- there are not enough of us for the Council to refuse a compromise measure, if we can devise one."

"And you think you can."

"There are ways," Spock says. "We are not the first species to have faced a crisis like this."

"No." Jim has been watching the increasing tension across Spock's shoulders and in his hands holding onto the reports. He says, "Look, do what you need to. Don't let them talk you out of Starfleet if you don't want to go. Anything else, we'll sort it out later." He grins. "I've got a little sway with people in high places now."

"Yes," Spock says but it sounds like a question.

"Yeah," Jim says. "Of course. This is more important." He settles back onto the bed and goes back to his refresher course in diplomatic material. He'll be glad when they can get back to normal – anything that helps them get there faster seems a good idea.

 

* * * *

Jim isn't sure they said everything they were supposed to say but he is happy, mostly, so he doesn't argue about it. He doesn't want to upset things. Spock kisses him outside the door of Jim's quarters that morning, and Jim says, "So I'll see you later?"

"You have your own briefings to attend."

"Yeah. Changing diplomatic situation in the Neutral Zone. Could take all day and probably will. Have fun with your diplomat."

"T'Rena is a very accomplished administrator. She is to be praised for her handling of the recent debate over changing social structures."

Jim nods. "Okay then. Have fun."

Spock nods, grips Jim's hand gently, and walks away down the corridor.

Jim checks in with him a few times during the day. He's careful not to overdo it. He checks in with Scotty and Uhura as well, who have their own briefings and 'knowledge sharing sessions' to attend. Jim is vaguely impressed at the way Starfleet have managed to coral his entire command crew into attending six month's worth of administrative duties, under the cover of 'well, you're all stuck here anyway'.

Spock answers Jim's fourth check-in with the same equanimity that he answered the first. "Things are progressing well, Captain. T'Rena and I will pass the evening together, unless my presence is required on the Enterprise?"

"You're not coming back tonight?"

Spock exhales and Jim can hear it. "We require less sleep than humans. I would rather work through the last points and finish in good time. As we discussed?"

"Okay, sure. Check in with me tomorrow when you're done."

"Yes, Captain," Spock says.

"Jim," he corrects, for what may be the thousandth time. "Why can't you remember that?"

"Jim," Spock says. "Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Jim agrees.

 

*

The next day, Spock checks in once, while Jim is in a briefing. He leaves a message saying that they've finished, but that he has gone to speak with the rest of the Vulcan delegation. Jim shouldn't expect him back until the late evening.

Jim goes to the bar on one of the recreation decks. He sees the woman Spock was meeting with earlier, sitting alone at a table. Jim walks to meet her. "T'Rena?" he checks.

"Captain Kirk." She inclines her head graciously. Jim wonders if that's something they learnt at school on Vulcan.

"Enjoying the ambience?" He gestures at the crowded bar.

"It is… interesting. I do not have a great deal of experience with such places."

"Yeah? I would have thought, with your position, you'd have seen all kinds of things."

"Not before this," she says. "I was advanced rather rapidly after the destruction." When Jim looks at her properly, she must be of an age with Spock, who by Vulcan standards is still pretty young.

He apologises and she brushes it off easily and invites him to sit. Jim isn't really up to making Vulcan small talk, but he tries his best. He asks the important questions about the rebuilding process and relations with the Federation. He tries to ask the generic personal stuff: what do you do, how's your family/partner/friends, how do you like the station?

The questions all seem loaded with more significance than he intends – they all call back to the big issues without him meaning them to.

So he talks about Spock. "So you and him got along okay?"

She stares at him, eyes fractionally wider – the immediate kind of reaction he's not used to getting.

"I'm sorry, did I-?" Jim asks. "I just meant you were talking things through. Ambassadorial, colony stuff? I hope your conversation was fruitful?"

"Oh. Of course." She's still looking at him oddly. "Spock sees to the heart of the problem quickly. He provided valuable input on matters of security and trade relations. He is much respected, even after his unconventional career choice."

Jim grins. "Yeah, we like him too. Though we prefer the 'unconventional', to be honest."

"I have heard that spoken."

"Now, was that a subtle jibe at me or just humanity in general?"

"Captain, I apologise if I- forgive me. I am not at my best tonight."

Jim leans down so he can look her in the eye. "Hey, no. I'm sorry. I was joking. I didn't think. Is everything okay? Did I do something?"

"No, no of course not."

"Something happened," Jim insists.

She shakes her head. "It was what you said before. We don't- Vulcans don't talk of that. It is personal."

Jim thinks back. He had asked a lot of personal questions, but he has some idea where Vulcan bounds of propriety lie, and doesn't think he crossed any. "Your family?" he asks.

"Spock," she says. "When you said… well, I assumed that you meant our… we don't talk about it that way. I know humans are different, and when you spoke about our… 'getting along' I assumed that you meant our compatibility. Personally."

Jim thinks about that. Vulcans don't tend towards euphemism and it takes him time to wind the conversation backwards to figure out what she means. "Sex," he says. "You mean sex."

She flushes impossibly bright and turns away from him to look across the bar. "Captain."

"I'm sorry." Jim apologises on automatic; he's been captain long enough now that he can fake politeness. "Excuse me a moment."

He nods at her and walks out of the bar to a quiet hallway. He pages Spock.

"Captain? I thought we had agreed that-."

"Is this a private channel?"

"Jim, what-?"

"Is this a private channel? I don't want to have this conversation on ship-wide."

"I am alone."

"Me too. But I was just talking with T'Rena. Tell me something."

"Yes?"

Jim leans his forehead into the wall. There's no one around but he whispers it: "You slept with her."

"Captain."

"Tell me I'm wrong? Please. 'Cause I'd love to be making an asshole of myself right now."

There is silence on Spock's end of the call and then: "Vulcan repopulation is at a critical-."

"Don't. Don't even…"

Spock says, "I explained the need for compromise with the Council on this issue. Symbolically and culturally. You-."

"You lied to me," Jim says, "You made me look like a…" That's not really what it's about, but it's the part which is stinging. He was just talking to her. Was just talking to Spock, an hour before.

Spock says, "I did not think that you would-."

Jim ends the call. He doesn't know what would have finished that sentence – he doesn't want to know. Vulcans take monogamy seriously. Regardless of changing cultural mores, changes in Federation attitudes over the past few centuries, Vulcans don't screw around. So either Spock thought Jim was too dumb to figure it out, or he didn't think they were doing anything he cared about breaking.

Jim stops thinking. He's good at that. He goes back into the bar and makes his excuses to T'Rena. He leaves. There's another bar, two levels down. It's not as formal as this one.

Jim finds a women who reminds him a little of Gaila. Her skin is a deep blue but she has the same flame-red hair and bright smile. Same look of knowing you bone deep without you saying a word. She glances at him once, orders them both a double-whiskey and says, "Dance with me." That doesn't require thought.

And so he goes with her and doesn't think of anything at all until three hours have passed and he's walking out of her door. Some part of him has been keeping time, if nothing else, and he needs to get back to the ship. She kisses the bite-mark on his neck and smiles at him. "Think about forgiving whoever it was. Life's too short."

Jim rallies a smile he doesn't mean and kisses her lips. "Yeah, I'll get right on that."

He transports back to the ship. People stare, he thinks – he isn't looking. The doors of his quarters slide shut and he instigates a command lock. And that's it. It's done.

 

* * * *

 

Ship's gossip goes: Jim screwed around and Spock dumped his ass. There are a half-dozen witnesses who saw Jim leave the bar with a beautiful woman. Another four or five who saw him walking back to the ship, or in the transporter room.

Ship's gossip says that Spock banged on Jim's door demanding an explanation and when he didn't get one, he left.

Ship's gossip says that it was only a matter of time, so why's the captain so pissy about it?

Jim can't do much about any of that. He knew the risks going in, for all that he's never paid any mind to crap like that. There are things that you can and can't do, when you're the captain of a starship and in command of a thousand or so people. Normally the things he can do are so much better than the things he misses out on that Jim doesn't care. He has to organise performance reviews and undergo performance reviews, and fill in forms and write reports and wear dress uniform but he's still, ultimately, the captain of a starship. That's not helping here.

A civilian can bitch about their boyfriend screwing around on them. An ensign, maybe, gets to say that operational efficiency would be improved if he didn't pull shifts with the crewmate with a crush on him. Or the superior officer with a crush on him. It shouldn't happen, but it's not unknown. A captain can't do that. A captain absolutely cannot behave badly because his second-in-command broke up with him. There are chain-of-command issues, and ship morale issues, but mostly it's that a captain who does that won't be captain for long. There are words for captains like that and none of them are good. Jim may not be the best captain in the world but he won't cross that line. The second he's pissy – the second he doesn't give Spock the conn, or screws around with their shifts, or won't let him off-ship – that's where he loses.

It's hard. The first thing Bones says is, "You couldn't keep it in your damn pants for a month?" And Jim knows that if he explained, Bones would be right there on his side. Bones would probably go punch Spock, which would end in unseemly nerve-pinching on the bridge, but Jim's best friend would come to his defence, no question. He'd also say 'I told you so' and he'd be right. Spock thinks differently. Jim had thought they were in a relationship and Spock clearly hadn't agreed. Jim doesn't give Bones the ammunition.

It's not that everyone else likes Spock better (Jim is fairly certain of this) but they've painted Jim as the villain. Even Chekov gives Jim a wounded look when he turns around in his chair. No one comes right out and says anything, for some of the same reasons that Jim doesn't correct the rumours. They just look at him and stop talking. It's not operationally relevant except for how it's slowly driving Jim out of his mind.

It's been a week and he's sitting in the mess, across the room from Uhura. She's sitting with some of the communications officers. Jim watches as she says something to one of the women, and stands up. She walks across to his table. "Captain."

Jim looks pointedly at the empty seats around him. "Sit down, Uhura, I'm sure we'll make room for you."

She smiles and pulls out a chair. "How are you?"

"Fine. You?"

"Not in the middle of a very public break-up," she says. "So there's that."

"Uhura…"

"Jim." Her voice is soft and she's very kind. "Ships and small-towns. At least with me and Spock, we could be discreet. You two never had much chance of that."

"No."

"But seriously, Jim. You can't have thought you could…"

"I didn't cheat on him."

"You left a bar with a woman and three hours later you left her room with bite marks."

"I don't cheat."

She scoffs. "Jim."

"I'll admit that's mostly because I don't usually get into a situation where- Look. I've slept with more than one person at the same time. In the same bed, or in different beds, or on floors or whatever. I've started a night dancing with one person and gone home with somebody else. But I've never… not where there was any kind of expectation. I've never said that it meant something it didn't mean. That was all him."

She looks at him then and her expression shifts. "You asked me once… you asked if you needed to be upset on his behalf or mine. Jim-."

There's a noise and Jim sees Bones moving the chair at the end of the table. Bones grins at them. "Getting advice?"

Something snaps. He doesn't raise his voice; he stands, bracing his hands on the back of the chair. "Look. I haven't said anything, I'm not causing a scene. I'm not risking my command throwing a hissy fit because my First Officer… But just this once, just for the record, he screwed around on me first. And it'd be nice if maybe someone had thought to ask me instead of assuming that it was just Jim Kirk fucking up again." Jim repeats, "He screwed me over first," because it's all of what he's hasn't been saying. He says, "He was the one who- he did the breaking. He's the one who- that's it. Okay?"

Bones is staring. Uhura looks at Jim and then crosswise over his shoulder. Jim turns.

Spock says, "Jim."

Jim rubs his hand over his head. "Let's… let's stick with 'Captain' for now, Mr Spock. Just for a little while."

He slips past Spock to get to the door. Keeping a careful distance.

 

* * * *

It doesn't make things better: pity is no better than anger if you're the captain of a ship. It makes Jim angrier, if anything, and now he's wound so tight he can barely see straight. But he has to, and so he manages to go day to day and not punch anyone or fuck anyone.

They're called out on an investigatory mission in an area near where some ships have disappeared. Scotty makes some vague 'like the old Bermuda Triangle days' comments and Jim feels the creep up his spine.

They announce themselves beforehand on all channels, eventually getting a staticy response. Of the 'welcome, come on down' kind, but Jim is still antsy. He can't tell whether it's instinct or his continued bad mood or something more serious. Then the engines shudder and there are frantic calls from engineering. Warp functionality gone – dead. This has just jumped to 'more serious'.

Jim calls down to the planet again. They don't understand what he's asking, or they pretend that they don't. They do acknowledge that there might be some electromagnetic interference. Jim will have to go to the surface and check it out.

Jim looks around the bridge. "Spock, Uhura, with me." He pages engineering, "Scotty, I want you and a team down there as well." He thinks about it and calls on six-man security team.

They transport down, security and then command team. Ensign Peel is already dead before Jim has his phaser out, yelling, "Down, everybody down!"

They return fire until there's quiet and another body in Starfleet uniform on the ground. Jim lifts his communicator. "Enterprise, we need back-up. Enterprise, do you read?" Silence on all channels.

Uhura taps at her own communicator. "Nothing, Captain. We're being blocked."

"The same thing that's interfering with the engines?"

"I can't be sure. Possibly."

"Scotty?"

"Some kind of electromagnetic field, yes, Captain, but it's playing merry hell with my facilities to take any reading from it."

"Okay. So we're… okay. Uhura, keep trying the Enterprise. Scotty, figure out what you can. Everyone else: stay alert. We're going to have to find some people to talk to. Assuming we can get them to stop shooting first."

They head through the tree line and keep close together. Jim takes point and knows without turning that Spock has taken his usual place at Jim's shoulder. They find the people who were shooting at them when they're abruptly surrounded.

Jim counts his men and their phasers against the locals and theirs. Thinks of the dead kids and their lack of communication and transporters. He lowers his phaser and motions to the others to do the same.

The one who must be the leader – the one at the front with the close-cut blond hair and square jaw – says, "We don't want you here. Our planet is defended."

"All right," Jim says, "we can leave. But you can't go disabling Starfleet ships and shooting their crew. The Federation will-."

"They never have before," he says bluntly. Statement of fact. Jim hears the threat.

"Okay," Jim says. "We'll leave. Just let us depart the planet peacefully and I'll make sure the Federation knows to give this planet a pass. You have my word."

"It is not that simple."

Jim sighs. It never is. "What do you want?" he asks.

"There is a test."

"Of course there is. Jim asks, "What kind of test?" He thinks about it. "You know what, tell me that at the end. What's the price of losing?"

"Death."

"And if I win?"

"None have succeeded so far. But if you were to reach the centre, you would be permitted to disable the field and leave in peace."

"With my crew."

"With your crew."

"Okay then. Let's go."

"Captain," Spock protests. "A task such as this should-."

"I didn't ask you." He looks at their leader. "Show me."

The leader's name is Talan and he walks alongside Jim the whole way to wherever it is they're going. His people keep their distance but they must have done this before. God knows how many ships have been lost here. Their weaponry is nothing to write home about, but if they remove the ability to send more people down, or to get away, they must be winning on force of numbers. They disappear into the woods and can pick off the intruders one by one. Or run this test instead.

There is a circle of rocks, with a construction in the centre. Lines of electrical energy arc across the circle from one side to the other. Everything fizzes and sparks.

Jim looks at it. "That's the off-switch?"

"In broad terms."

People keep thinking he's an idiot. It could help them later, so Jim doesn't correct the notion. "And all I have to do is go over there and push the button?"

"That will commence a brief period of system reset. Should you make the journey."

"And why would that be a problem? It's maybe fifteen metres from one side to the other. I think I'll manage."

"The circle is protected. You cannot cross it with hostile intent. It works for the good of the planet."

"I don't have hostile intent towards the planet. I just want to get my people home."

Talan looks at Jim. "Then you should have no difficulty."

Jim rolls his eyes. "Fine. Give me a minute to get ready."

He goes to talk to Scotty. Spock is still frowning and Jim ignores him. If he doesn't, Spock will volunteer himself, and that's not going to happen. Jim got them into this – he'll get them out. Jim looks at Scotty. "Telepathic force field?"

"Oh, I don't think it's anything that clever. Not enough equipment, for one thing. Could be it's reading basic bio-signs: heart rate, breathing, sweat. So it can decide whether you're about to kick into fight mode."

"Wouldn't that also pick up if you're about to run? Or if you're, I don't know, worried about being zapped by an electrical-field?"

"I never said it was a particularly sophisticated method. Captain, are you really sure you want to…?"

"How are you going with deciphering what they're doing to our engines?" Scotty shakes his head. "Well then," Jim says, "I guess I'm sure."

All he has to do is get from one side to the other.

"Breathe deep," Scotty says. "Try not to think."

Uhura laughs behind them, enough like ordinary that Jim grins.

Talan claps his hands together. "Enough. Begin!"

Jim steps into the circle. There is a brush of static across his face, but nothing more than that.

He walks across, thinking only of reaching the centre, and getting his crew back safely. That's his job, the most important one. He doesn't ask anything of his crew he wouldn't ask of himself but it's hard, still. It's hard to feel that the mission was anything more than failure when you have to teleport bodies back to the ship. He's never going to be easy with dealing with that. Acceptable losses and diplomatic necessity.

Pain lances down his spine.

He turns at the shout of his name, already fallen to his knees, thinking breathe, breathe, breathe. He holds up his hand to stop them – "Wait," – and can barely get the word out.

"Captain!"

"Damn you, Spock, wait." He forces a breath, and another. He's been hurt worse than this, even if he can't remember when right now. "I've been inside your head," he reminds Spock. "You wouldn't do better."

Scotty is trying to get his datapad to interface with the equipment, sucking on his fingers when the thing shocks him. Jim is biting his lip not to scream. He tries to stand and falls down again. The spasms run up and down his legs.

Spock is clearly about to try and come get him, explicit instructions or not. And then the two most senior officers on the ship will be writhing in pain. That'll help. His inner monologue is beginning to sound like Bones. He tries to think. "Wait," Jim says again. "Wait. Uhura are you…?"

She's already stepping through. "I can do it," she says. She's breathing slow and deep. Clear thoughts.

When she reaches him, Jim says, "Get me up." Her arm wraps around his and pulls. She settles her hand on his waist. "No," he says, "that way. We need to finish it."

"Captain," she says, "Let me get you back first."

"No. This first." It hurts – God, it hurts – getting to the central console and falling against it. He has his phaser. He could blast this thing away, tear their planetary defences to pieces. He might even feel good about it, for a little while. To do instead of being done to. Jim's fingers find the edge of the console switch; he has to hit it twice before it holds.

The pain doesn't stop, but outside the circle Scotty is talking frantically into his communicator.

Talan's frown is growing – he's calling his men in. Jim can hear him, muted: "-breached the terms of the agreement."

Jim says, "You didn't say I had to do it without getting hurt." He looks at Uhura. "We need to run."

There's relief when they break through the boundary but everything still hurts. Adrenaline's going to have to carry him through until Bones can do the rest. Jim hears the zip of covering fire and they're going full speed now. Spock is holding him up from the other side.

Someone falls beside him, just as they make the clearing where they beamed down. Jim stops to see what has happened but it's already too late. There's no time to fire back, to give justice to these three kids Jim just walked to their deaths. They need to be gone already.

Jim lifts his communicator, finally hearing the Enterprise on the other end. "Eight to beam up," he says, "and three bodies. Now!"

He comes crashing onto the transporter room floor. Jim counts the people again: Eight and three bodies. There are medical personnel and security staff but all Jim hears is the voice in his ear saying: "Taking fire."

Bones gets to him first, dragging him towards sickbay even as Jim is saying, "Spock, you need to-."

Spock isn't even listening, heading towards the bridge in an effortless run. Uhura takes after him; Scotty is running to engineering.

The hypospray puts Jim out of it for a little while. When he wakes up, Bones is saying, "nerve damage exacerbated by…"

"Bones?" His legs aren't doing what he tells them to.

"Hey, Jim, don't even try to- Jim!"

"I need a crutch." He can still move his toes but his legs won't hold him up, not all the way there.

"Jim."

"I need to be on the bridge, Bones. If you don't get me a fucking stick, I'll crawl."

"It's fine, kid. Everything's fine."

It's not. The ship sounds wrong and no one has downgraded the alert status. The Enterprise rocks and he can feel it even through the stabilisers – she's hit, and hit again. She isn't moving.

Jim bangs on a communicator. "Spock, get us out of here. Their system's going to reset and we'll lose the engines again. This is no time for-." He takes his finger off the button to say, "Shit, Bones, what the hell was that for?"

"Painkiller. Now are you going to let me give you a sedative or not?"

"Not," Jim answers as forcefully as he can manage. He stands. Nurse Chapel has rustled up a crutch from somewhere. It bears his weight to the turbolift and the bridge, with Bones following him in protest.

They all turn when he walks through the door. From their expressions, he must look worse than he thinks he does. Jim stumbles on the way to the chair; Spock tries to catch his arm. Jim jerks away, falling against the back of the chair. "Don't," he says. "Don't-." He doesn't know what he's saying, but Spock can't touch him now. Not with dead ensigns and his ship under fire. He needs to think.

Around the bridge, they're too quiet now. Waiting for him to come up with something that will make this okay.

He pages engineering. "Scotty, what have we got?"

"-mage to all- shields at sixty- warp compromised. Wait." There's a crackling series of pops. "Is that better?"

"Yeah. Can we get out of here?"

"It's gonna tax the engines burning our way out of their orbit but-."

"But there's maybe another two minutes before they get that thing back online. Do it."

"If I do… we'll be limping the rest of the way, Captain. She won't have much left."

Jim murmurs, "I know the feeling."

"Captain?"

Jim sighs. "Bones, I'm losing… in my leg. What are we looking at?"

"Nerve damage. Reconstruction. Rehab."

"Scotty? My ship?"

"She's going to need a bit of a rebuild, Captain. Time in dock wouldn't go amiss."

There's a heavy, awful silence, like he's about to snap and he might take them with him. Jim catches Chekov's eyes in the viewscreen and the kid flinches. Jim rubs his cheek absently and finds blood on his fingertips. Fuck. He looks at Uhura. "Let Starfleet know we're coming in early. I'll have a report for them and I'll take full responsibility for the time in dock."

His legs are giving out beneath him and Bones is an arm's length away. So even he's too scared to come close.

Jim says, "Scotty? Just keep her together a bit longer. Get us home. Mr Chekov, Mr Sulu, you heard me. Bones, I'll take that sedative now. Spock has the conn."